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Sarah Rayner

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Completely compelling & very thought-provoking

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 06-04-20

Having found ‘Notes on a Scandal’ so unputdownable a couple of years ago, my expectations of Sarah Vaughan’s latest novel were high, and I’m delighted to report ‘Little Disasters’ is confidently its equal yet very different, and confirms Vaughan as an author not to miss.

When stay-at-home mother-of-three Jess brings her ten-month-old baby into hospital with a head injury, her friend Liz is the doctor on duty who treats her. In spite of knowing Jess well, Liz is troubled by Jess’s evasiveness and the fact the wound and circumstances don’t marry up. Thus begins a story exploring child neglect and culpability, friendship, familial roles and a whole heap more. Its focus is a group of mothers who meet in perinatal class but don’t for a moment assume this is a tale that will only resonate with mothers of young children - I’ve no kids and was hooked from the off.

Listening at the start of the Covid-19 lockdown and having been in a state of heightened anxiety for several weeks, the longing to escape into a world other than ours right now is stronger than ever, but to achieve that in the midst of so many other distractions was going to take an exceptionally captivating book. Strange though it might seem, ’Little Disasters’ was a just what a book doctor would have ordered for me, it’s not ‘uplit’ by any means, but we’re all different in our tastes and needs and when I’m struggling or low I don’t want to read comic novels or romances; I cry out for novels that tell stories which in some way resonate and enlighten, and in that way help me through. Vaughan’s characters are richly drawn and psychologically interesting, her plotting is twisty and sharp, but what makes her work stand out is the quality of the writing itself; she crafts her language, the dialogue is nuanced, her metaphors original. Moreover, as many are stuck in their homes with their children off school, this exploration of contemporary motherhood and the pressure to be perfect is spookily topical. Many of my peers are struggling to manage homeschooling at zero notice and with little or no experience of doing it hitherto, alongside their own work and trying to process the most serious global situation since WW2. For some reason (sexism, let me name it, why not?) the pressure seems to be on mothers to manage this juggling act. At a time when the notion of ‘having it all’ is farcical, it’s interesting to consider how the pressure to function perfectly in the maternal and professional arenas has ramped up in recent years and consider the psychological havoc it can wreak.

Highly recommended.

5 people found this helpful

Dreary narration of a story lacking drama

Overall
2 out of 5 stars
Performance
2 out of 5 stars
Story
2 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 26-03-20

I’m virtually a lone voice of dissension it appears, but after all the hype and glowing reviews of this book I expected something with way more ‘oomph’. It seemed lacking in story and rich characterisation, so I didn’t get much sense of the characters as rounded, breathing beings, and after hours of listening I didn’t care very much about either of them. This may have been the narrator- who was tonally flat in her delivery, but It also might be because a couple of months back I listened to another novel on a similar subject which for me resonated powerfully. It has been much less widely publicised but it’s a gem: it’s called ‘Putney’ - not a great title perhaps, but a thought provoking and compelling book about a young girl’s relationship with a much older family friend. By all means give this a go as we all enjoy different books (and hurrah for that) but check out Sofka Zinovieff’s book too as it’s a great listen!

Absolutely fantastic

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 06-02-20

Not just compelling but beautifully written and narrated. Deals with ‘big’ issues yet has a heart - should not just be a bestseller but win prizes. Recommended without reservation, to people of all political persuasions, and across the spectrum of literary tastes.

1 person found this helpful

Compelling and convincing - highly recommended

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 09-12-19

This novel was recommended to me by a friend whose opinion I respect so I decided to give a go. I'm glad I did, and I hope this review helps to persuade to follow our lead, as a title that gives nothing away and an out-of-focus cover image tell readers little of what to expect from ‘Putney'.

In a nutshell, this is the story of a successful composer and his illicit affair with a 13-year-old in the '70s. It flips between that era and now, so we see Ralph and Daphne at 30 and 13, and also at 70 and 53, thus giving the author the chance to explore our changing attitudes to sexual relationships from the personal perspective of her characters, and a historical one.

It's neither voyeuristic nor coy, and manages to make you want to know more about its cast of not-terribly-likable characters from the off. In this respect Zinovieff's writing reminded me far more of Louise Doughty's 'Apple Tree Yard', say, than 'Lolita'. (Unlike ATY, however, I had a very personal response to 'Putney'. Hard not to, when I’m the same age as her protagonist Daphne, ie born in 1963, was also the child of bohemian parents AND went to school in Putney for 11 years straight.) I could picture the setting all too easily and, unfortunately, the abusive relationship of which the author writes. Thankfully I never had a 'Ralph' in my life, but there was a man who regularly exposed himself to me as I walked home from school and I have looked back before and thought 'gosh, how different the response of the adults I knew then was to the one I'd get now'. Yet whilst I can see that it's too simplistic to judge the past by today’s moral standards, at the same time I've hitherto felt torn about where that leaves us in terms of historic sexual abuse. In this respect the novel helped me to unravel some of my own confusion; largely because 'Putney' does not shy away from these difficult questions but tackles them head on, with bravura, intelligence and a lack of sentimentality. I gulped it down in 48 hours and found it gripping yet subtle and touching. (And as an aside, I had no problem with the narration; to make the child *not* sound younger would have seemed to be sanitising the story to make it easier on our ears. On this score I'd suggest listening to a sample to see if this irks you.) In conclusion, I’d recommend this novel wholeheartedly and hope you enjoy it as much as I and my friend did.

Wonderfully written & beautifully read

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 21-11-19

This is a delightful audio book, and a credit to the genre. I was familiar with The Posthumous Adventures of Harry Whittaker in paperback and loved it but confess I have found sometimes this leads to disappointment when listening to an audio version - not in this case, not at all!

I'm happy to report the Peter Kenny is the perfect choice of narrator - I see he's read Agatha Christie, Iain Banks and Jonas Jonasson so Bobbie Darbyshire is in illustrious company - and he delivers the mix of humour and insight this thoroughly entertaining story deserves. It follows the story of Britain's legendary actor, Harry Whittaker, not from birth to death, but after death, as the title implies. In some ways it reminds me of Dickens' A Christmas Carol in that the central conceit revolves around an old man reviewing his life and being shown the error of his self-centred, careless ways. But this is no mere copycat novel, not at all. It's very much a 21st century tale, packed with characters that feel very three dimensional and which I'm convinced could be walking the streets nearby me today. (That I live in Brighton, where much of the tale is set, makes this feel even more likely.)

If stories which combine comic dexterity, subtle character development and quietly compelling narrative are your bag, I strongly suggest you download this today.

3 people found this helpful

Recommended - the best domestic noir novel I’ve come across in a long time

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 05-10-19

Stretches credulity in a couple of places (characters seem to behave unlike their erstwhile selves), and I’m a weirdo I know but I’d have preferred less twists as they gave the novel an OTT feel (though I know there’s a pressure to deliver these by the truckload currently) but those reservations aside, I’d heartily recommend this. For me what raised it up high was the first half and in particular the portrait of Simon as a drinker. I thought this brilliant - having lived with an alcoholic it rang very true - as did Daisy’s response to her husband. Great narration on Audible too this deserves to do very well.

7 people found this helpful

Not Atwood's best, by a long way

Overall
2 out of 5 stars
Performance
2 out of 5 stars
Story
2 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 02-10-19

I first read Margaret Atwood as a young undergraduate full of feminist zeal in the early '80s and have enjoyed many of her novels. Life Before Man, Cat’s Eye, Alias Grace, Oryx and Crake - all reveal Atwood’s imagination, gift for storytelling and character creation. But of all her backlist, it is The Handmaid’s Tale that most lingered. I read it on publication and found it haunting and horrifying and gripping in equal measure so pressed copies into my friends’ hands, who all felt likewise. As its follow-up, The Testaments was thus a book I eagerly awaited. I had it on order on Audible six months before publication. A place on the Booker shortlist and scores of 5* reviews here only increased my anticipation.

The Testaments begins 15 years after the events of The Handmaid’s Tale (presumably to allow the TV series to fill in this time with episodes yet to be aired), and focuses the lives of three different women. Two are young – one is in Gilead, the other in Canada – and the third is Aunt Lydia, who will be familiar to many from the first book.

Without spoiling the plot, I can reveal that Aunt Lydia seemed to have changed character since the original and is now a kinder, more compassionate woman. Although I didn’t ‘buy’ the reasons why this would be so, I found her the most interesting voice. The other two perspectives are both irritating and obvious – I found the Canadian teen speak particularly annoying and neither warmed to nor was interested in either woman. Moreover, the first half of the novel seemed to add little to the picture of Gilead painted by the original novel so was slow plot-wise. The second half picks up pace but as it’s revealed in both The Handmaid’s Tale and the outset of this that Gilead falls, I’d little invested in the outcome.

Coming to a novel (or anything come to that) with high expectations as I did makes disappointment likely but not inevitable. Most clearly disagree with my reaction, yet The Testaments is for me Atwood’s least successful book. Maybe it’s because writing a book ‘to answer reader’s questions’ (as Atwood explains at the end of this recording) is not as profound a motivation as she usually has, or maybe it’s because it was written in many different places, though I find it hard to believe the latter would impact a writer as gifted as she. It seems more likely that is was not edited as rigorously as previous novels and was rushed to maximise the considerable sales opportunities provided by the success of the series. These are reasons which can only be guessed at by a reader or listener such as myself. (Although as an author I am aware how the publishing industry works so suspect the latter is not beyond the realms of possibility.) At the end of the day none change my response; I was not moved or engaged by this novel.

Narration-wise I found it ponderous. Ann Dowd is great but the two young women only became tolerable by listening to the audio at a speed of 1.25 - something I’ve not felt a need for with an audio book before.

In summary, had The Testaments been marketed as a YA novel with no connection to a book I treasure, I probably would have enjoyed it more. As it is, the language had little to startle let alone horrify and I know already it will not linger for me like the original. I only finished it as we’re discussing it in my book group. Hence 2*s.

A romantic and moving story, perfect for my Tuscan holiday

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
5 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 11-08-19

A thoroughly enjoyable listen, which both moved and engaged me from the off. Authentically captures the times and places in which it’s set and serves as an important reminder the French were not the only ones with a resistance fighting Fascism in WW2. Strongly recommended.

Flawed but fantastic

Overall
5 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 24-07-19

After writing a book that sold something like 12 million copies, it must be pretty tempting to take life a tad easy. Either that, or one might be easily paralysed by follow-up book syndrome. Many lesser authors, dare I say, would rejig Eat, Pray, Love in different ways, or simply do a lot of eating and loving and perhaps a teeny weeny bit of praying whilst not writing about any of them. Instead, Elizabeth Gilbert has written several more books that are nothing like Eat, Pray, Love (which I rather enjoyed, at the time, before it spawned a trillion imitations).

This backdrop to my mind, makes ‘The Signature of All Things’ even more remarkable, and it’s a remarkable novel by any standards. Hugely ambitious, painstakingly researched and written with humour and flair, it’s starts before the turn of the 19th Century and finishes over 100 years later, making botanist Alma Whittaker its focus. The start is audacious - it takes us decades to get to the birth of Alma as we follow the story of her father Henry, but his character is so large and entertaining readers/listeners are sustained until her birth.

The prose has the elegance - and verbosity - of a 19th-century tome, but its themes - the intersection of science and faith, female sexuality and yearnings and the struggle for fulfilment - are especially modern. Some parts are more enjoyable than others (I tired of Tahiti and the obsessing over the ex) and particular characters seem given more space than they deserve whilst others who charm disappear too soon but as a whole it is written with such verve, perspicacity and bravura by Elizabeth Gilbert and read so deftly and brilliantly by Juliet Stevenson I have to come down firmly on the side of recommending it.

The first quarter is slow but stick with it

Overall
4 out of 5 stars
Performance
5 out of 5 stars
Story
4 out of 5 stars

Reviewed: 11-07-19

I loved this but I sooo nearly gave up, that I’d urge others to give it a go but to reserve judgement for the first couple of hours. They will make sense later, though still they could have done with an edit. One we get past Edwina going round her Kennington home and onto Fern at Manchester Poly in 1981, it all takes off. Enjoyed hearing ‘Adam’ from the Archers in a different role too.

1 person found this helpful